Back-to-back documentaries on children and psychotropic
medications, tonight and tomorrow night, on A&E and PBS.
Here’s a review from the NEW YORK TIMES.
April 9, 2001
Television Review: Ifs, Ands or Buts of Drugs for Restless U.S.
By C McDONALD
By pure coincidence, two documentaries on two different
channels are arriving back to back tonight and tomorrow to
examine the same issue: the widening and sometimes
harrowing use of psychoactive drugs in America to modify
children’s behavior. Suffice it to say that the programs ˜ the first
on A&E, the other on PBS ˜ are in many ways redundant.
They even largely look alike: both of these well-made
presentations are structured around intimate portraits of people
caught up in this anguishing phenomenon.
Thus, over two nights, we encounter seven boys and girls, some
illustrating the drugs’ benefits, others telling of depression,
malnourishment, even psychosis after being put on
medications. We’re also introduced to Adderall, Zoloft,
Wellbutrin, Cylert, Dexedrine and, most prevalent of all, Ritalin ˜
drugs administered to help troubled children sit still in school,
concentrate, get along with others (including the teacher) and
have fruitful lives.
Given the programs’ similarities, the obvious question is, which
is the one to watch: “Generation Rx: Reading, Writing and
Ritalin,” one of Bill Kurtis’s “Investigative Reports,” to be shown
on A&E tonight, or “Medicating Kids,” a Frontline special
appearing on PBS tomorrow?
The answer is not so cut and dried. Both hourlong
documentaries are serious, sometimes startling contributions to
an important discussion over the increasing ˜ and some say
spurious ˜ diagnosis of attention deficit disorder and attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder in children (up to four million cases,
by one estimate). And for all the parallels, each program
contains an angle or two that the other doesn’t.
The A&E program, for instance, looks at the alternative of
long-term drug-free behavior therapy. The Frontline
documentary, more aggressively, suggests that drug
manufacturers and certain pliable doctors may have entered into
unholy alliances to promote the use of the drugs among
What’s more, watching both programs affords an illuminating
opportunity to see how two of the lamentably few investigative
bodies still standing in television journalism can differ so
markedly in tone even when plowing the same ground.
The Kurtis production wastes no time in establishing a darkly
dramatic approach, not to mention tipping its hand to its
sympathies. “It’s scary: we’re polluting our best resource,” says
an anonymous, unchallenged voice in the opening. “Putting our
kids on these drugs when they really don’t need it.” Mr. Kurtis, the
host, asserts that use of the drugs may challenge “the very
essence of childhood itself.”
Frontline takes a more measured tack, which ultimately gives it
the edge, declaring at the outset its more open-minded
intentions: “We wanted to know why kids are being prescribed
these drugs and whether or not they help.”
All sides get a fair hearing in both reports: those who say the
drugs have rescued many children from calamitous lives, and
those who say the drugs have been wildly overprescribed,
leading in one case, recalled on Frontline, to a 12-year-old boy’s
classroom suicide attempt using a pencil.
Both presentations also acknowledge that it is too early to know
the drugs’ long-term effects. But only Frontline seems willing to
end on an honestly inconclusive note. On A&E, Mr. Kurtis can’t
resist a loaded sign- off about Einstein and the scientist’s own
apparent attention deficit as a child. Where might we be, Mr.
Kurtis seems to ask, if the father of relativity had been a child of